The Great God Debate and the Future of Faith

Alexander Saxton

The “Great God Debate” that ushered in the twenty-first century of our so-called Common Era brought atheism to the top of U.S. best-seller lists. This in itself i s historic: nothing quite like it has happened since the 1890s, when Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and Jack London—world-class nonbelievers all—held mass audiences spellbound with their radical writing and oratory. Is atheism—like tourism in the jet age—getting ready to declare global dominion?

Nothing that spectacular, I fear, is yet on the agenda. Nonetheless, the debate may be crucial for us all, and, to understand its possible outcomes, we need to begin with the historical context. Over the past several centuries, religious disputation formed a normal part of everyday politics in Europe. In the United States, by contrast, religious disputes seldom reached the level of national politics and then only when faith itself seemed in jeopardy. The ongoing conflicts of religion and science that were triggered by the Enlightenment in Europe affected America only marginally at first, by way of anticlerical skeptics like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Yet from the Enlightenment emerged the age of secularism, linked on both shores of the North Atlantic to industrialization and urban growth and deeply enmeshed throughout the nineteenth century with disenchantment from belief. Thus, American radicals of the 1890s—Twain, Ingersoll, London, and the rest—could with some assurance celebrate what they took to be the triumph of secular rationalism.

Stage 1: Fundamental Hubris

The next act in this grand drama was by no means rational. Instead of secularizing the globe (as once seemed imminent), North Atlantic industrialism imploded into two wars of self-destruction with the depression of the 1930s sandwiched between. For vast numbers of human beings, these events shattered their confidence (one might say their faith) that technological/industrial progress could lead to anything other than disaster. There would then remain two possible directions of movement:

  1. to blame industrial capitalism for the mishaps and move in a socialist direction; or
  2. to attribute the ills of the modern world to secularism and disbelief and move in a “spiritual” direction.

Obviously, religious institutions and clerical hierarchies (to say nothing of the capitalist ruling classes) favored the latter alternative. This preference has roughly dominated religious behavior since the end of the Second World War.

What followed in the United States—sometimes described by scholars of religion as the fourth “Great Awakening”—grew from humble beginnings. The Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City (1965), believes that “fire from heaven” fell first on Pentecostals in urban slums then spread upward through hierarchies of evangelical Protestantism, eventually infiltrating the mainstream Christian denominations. One beneficiary was the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority. With $1,000 of venture capital and a congregation of only thirty-five, Falwell opened his first church in an abandoned building. Twenty-five years later, when the Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan president, Falwell was disbursing a $10 million budget and directing the activities of thousands of trained clergymen as well as “several million volunteers.” Falwell exemplifies a diaspora of evangelical pilgrims from the old South who busily staked out claims in television, radio talk-shows, and popular fiction. Long before atheism broke into the media firmament, drummers for the old-time religion had made their mark there.

The fundamentalist invasion of the media not only converted penniless preachers into millionaires, it generated turnouts of conservative voters and big bucks for willing candidates. Out of it came the alliance of Christian fundamentalism with neo-liberal economics that has dominated Republican politics for the past thirty years. But this marriage was neither equal nor always happy.

Even in America, where the word class tends to be banned from polite discourse, there remains a subliminal awareness of the power of class consciousness. Neo-liberals, generally of upper-class extraction, tend to be contemptuous of fundamentalist concerns unless they yield immediate payoffs in the form of mass support for Republican economic policies. Yet if Republican strategy has for its goal the establishment of a global free market, it seems unlikely that Christian fundamentalism can long continue to serve its purposes. For their part, U.S. Pentecostals and fundamentalists, usually drawn from working-class or marginally middle-class roots, naturally view neo-liberal economics with suspicion. But working with neo-liberals pays dividends, enhancing the prestige of their own religious connections and channeling power (and wealth) to their leaders. Exciting stuff, but how far can such vicarious satisfaction be stretched? If, however, moral issues win votes—and moral issues stem from fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture—might this not seem the opportune moment to push the neo-liberal alliance to its maximum setting, that is, to demand the enactment of Christian fundamentalism into law? Of course, this was tried out long ago (say, at the time of the Scopes case) and did not work very well. Yet that was back in the dark days of secularism. Times are different now. Aren’t they?

The foregoing conveys the core logic that inspired both the creationist and intelligent design movements. These two are so closely linked doctrinally that I will not try to deal with them separately. Their partial success triggered the Great God Debate, since it forced the scientific/educational establishment (somewhat reluctantly) into the arena to defend its turf.

Science in the first decade of the twenty-first century stands at the apex of its greatest era of success thus far. The most recent breakthroughs are in precisely those areas of genetics and evolutionary biology that seem most alarming to fundamentalist believers. Challenging science in the twenty-first century is like flying too close to the sun. One might sum this up by observing that what was required for transforming habitually closeted scholars and researchers into tub-thumping and occasionally best-selling authors was precisely the hubris of Christian fundamentalism.

While fundamentalists comprise only a minority of Christians, defenders of science (like science itself) include believers and nonbelievers. Understandably, some of science’s earliest and most aggressive defenders came from the ranks of nonbelievers. Yet that was only the beginning. As the debate unfolds it draws in various ideological tendencies, deeply committed to the God question pro or con but seldom in concurrence as to what they are defending science against.

The debate has developed in several distinct stages. Stage 1, as noted above, comprised the fundamentalist campaign for creationism and/or intelligent design. In stage 2 (next up), the atheists—perhaps better prepared for clerical combat than most of their colleagues—came marching in to hold the front lines. Stage 3 brings scientist-believers (under the increasingly astute guidance of the fabulously wealthy John M. Templeton Foundation) into alliance with nonbelievers against fundamentalism. In stage 4 we come up against a central problem of this debate, that is, how to explain the universality of religious belief. Beyond this point, we will be looking ahead more than back, and I can no longer (or not yet) properly speak of stages. Nonetheless, history does furnish empirical data for speculation. So I will call my closing section “Speculation”: how will religious believers and atheists relate to one another during the real crises of the coming century—those of proliferating weapons of mass destruction and ecological burnout?

Stage 2: When the Atheists Come Marching In

Fundamentalism stems from a muscular but nonrational exertion of faith. Promoting creationism and intelligent design, on the other hand, requires rationalist deployments of the argument from design along with cautiously selected claims for scriptural inerrancy. These make easy targets for skeptical critics. The design argument (nowadays) is not hard to refute. According to Richard Dawkins in his massive 2006 critique of religion, The God Delusion, Darwinian research over the past century (while affirming the semblance of design in nature) has systematically destroyed the argument from design as proof of God’s agency. Inerrancy is even easier to knock down than design. “[A]dvances in the art of war,” Sam Harris declared in The End of Faith (2004), “have finally rendered our religious differences—and hence our religious beliefs—antithetical to our survival . . . because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons . . . Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal,’ or they will unmake our world.”

Best sellers by Dawkins and Harris, by Daniel C. Dennett (Pulitzer and National Book award finalist) and E.O. Wilson (twice winner of the Pulitzer) exemplify this new style of outspoken polemics. And to these must be added Christopher Hitchens—not, like the others, a scientist but a journalist of impressive polemical skill—whose God Is Not Great was also a best seller.

As the next section will make clear, skeptics and nonbelievers are by no means the only defenders of science. Yet because self-proclaimed nonbelievers have seldom been heard in public discourse (in America, at least); because theirs were among the earliest voices raised; and especially, I think, because of the eloquence and relevance of their testimony, this “atheist phase” has had a powerful impact on the development of the God Debate.

Meanwhile, it seems clear that fundamentalists are losing the battle. Politically speaking, the neocon-fundamentalist alliance is in disarray. Neocon economic policies have begun to alienate moderate centrist evangelicals. On the other hand, fundamentalist positions on moral issues are becoming increasingly cumbersome for neocons both in domestic and foreign affairs. The most telling index to these changes, however, is not at the political level but in the strategic withdrawal of religiously oriented scientists from creationism and intelligent design.

Stage 3: Strategic Withdrawals

The Human Genome Project is one of the most successful (and lavishly funded) enterprises in the history of American science. Its present director, Francis Collins, a self-proclaimed Christian believer, explains that although raised in a “conventionally modern” secular family, he encountered the truth of Christianity by reading C.S. Lewis. Convinced that God speaks in languages of both science and revelation, Collins rejects any sort of scriptural determinism. “Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world,” he has written. “. . . [T]he scientific method is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events.” But then he adds: “Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual world view is another way of finding truth.”

If the Genome Project stands at the summit for evolutionary biology, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies marks a similar eminence in cosmology. Among the Institute’s emeritus professors is theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Like Collins, Dyson makes public confession of Christian belief yet at the same time disavows literal interpretation. Turning from cosmic theory to applied physics, we have the example of Charles Townes, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. A Nobel Prize–winner for work on microwaves, masers, and lasers, Townes credits his scientific discoveries to “a ‘revelation’ as real as any described in the scriptures.” He, too, then warns against fundamentalist readings of the Bible. “I do believe in both a creation and a continuous effect . . . [God’s] laws guide how the universe was built. But the Bible’s description of creation occurring over a week’s time is just an analogy. . . . It is very unfortunate that this kind of discussion has come up.”

These distinguished scientist-believers exemplify a trend among moderate believers, an effort to immunize belief itself against skeptical criticism by repudiating such extremes of religious behavior as fundamentalism. Might one then anticipate a corresponding (but opposite) tendency among moderate nonbelievers (agnostics, spiritualists, deists) to promote their moderate stance at the expense of extremists in their own camp—that is, at the expense of atheists? Indeed we find precisely this tendency. Michael Ruse, philosopher of science, “evolutionist [and] ardent Darwinian”—who testified decisively against creationism in the seminal 1981 test case McLean v. Arkansas—insists that radical Darwinists like Dennett and Dawkins are in reality giving aid and comfort to their own worst enemies. “I don’t have any more belief than Dawkins,” Ruse told a reviewer for the Boston Globe, “but I do think it matters that he is making it very difficult for those of us who care about evolution to put forward a reasonable face [to the portion of the public] in the middle.” “I think you and Richard [Dawkins],” Ruse wrote in a personal letter to Daniel Dennett, “are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design—we are losing the battle. . . . What we need is not some knee-jerk atheism but grappling with the issues . . . we are in a fight, we need to make allies . . . not simply alienate everyone of good will.”

Dawkins responded by acknowledging Ruse’s contributions in the fight against creationism then excoriating his more recent role as a form of appeasement—“the Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” One wonders if Dawkins would have applied this same harsh term to the rejection of fundamentalism by “moderate” believers like Collins, Dyson, and Townes.

In certain contexts, disavowals of polar extremes (whether atheism or fundamentalism) might read as movements in opposing directions. Yet in another, politically crucial, context, they appear as movements of convergence toward a common center. I can best make this point (and open a landfill of empirical evidence in support of it) by noting that Townes, Dyson, and Collins, on one side of the hiatus, and Ruse, presumably on the other, have all been large-scale beneficiaries of the famous “Sir John” Templeton Foundation. (For more on the Templeton Foundation, see my “‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation and the New Trinitarianism,” Free Inquiry June/July 2007.) The foundation disburses some $60 million a year (an amount expected soon to double) in support of projects aimed, presumably, at bringing science and religion into harmonious collaboration. Its eponymous Templeton Prize (of which more is said below) increases its value as needed to ensure it is always a bit more lucrative than the Nobel.

The Templeton connection is illuminating, because it predicts (and was itself instrumental in guiding) the trajectory of the fundamentalist-neocon alliance. When American fundamentalism launched its crusades for creationism and intelligent design, many observers assumed that the Templeton Foundation would support these initiatives. It did, briefly, but soon reversed course to stand in opposition to the creationist/intelligent design agenda. This apparent betrayal of Templeton’s grass-roots constituency was imposed in part, I think (although I know no way of demonstrating such a relationship), by the impressive power of the atheist defense of science, then already at full throttle. By 2005, in policy statements and letters to the press, the Foundation decisively repudiated creationism and intelligent design, while “Sir John” made much more space for ecumenical and latitudinarian themes in his Web site presentations.

A measure of the distance traveled since the Templeton Prize was first offered is to compare qualifications of winners, then and now. The earliest winners were Mother Teresa (1972) and Billy Graham (1973). Today the prize is awarded to—and unhesitatingly accepted by—scientists of unquestioned eminence. Thirty-five years ago, scholars of such distinction might have spurned an award that placed them alongside Mother Teresa or Billy Graham. Today they need feel no such anxiety. The astronomic rise in Templeton’s prestige is reflected in the changed name of the prize itself. When won by Mother Teresa, it was “The John Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.” The prize won by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in 2007 was “The John Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.” Progress is a constant in both variants, but progress toward what? Toward religion? We may think we know what that is, but what are “Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”? And what happens to fundamentalism—that is, to traditional revealed religion—if believers are obliged to pursue “research and discovery” in order to arrive at a “spiritual reality?”

The Foundation’s definition of its own mission shows a similar drift away from fundamentalism. Many of “Sir” John’s earlier statements carry an authentic ring of old-time Tennessee religion (“[God’s] infinity covers not only one planet but the entire solar system and 100 billion suns; that doesn’t mean He is limited in his ability to be part of you.” Or, “The question is not is there a God?; but is there anything except God?”) Such remarks still can be found on the Web site, but they appear as quotations—that is, relegated to historical context— whereas the current, up-to-date statement of purpose stands by itself on the home page:

In keeping with Sir John Templeton’s intent, his Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research and discoveries relating to what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. We support work at the world’s top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief.

And indeed the Foundation has been diversifying its investments, supporting not just “progress in religion” but also the progress of neoconservative and libertarian economics. Reportedly, the Foundation plans soon to disburse some $20 million to $25 million per year for popularizing free-market ideology.

With this clue in hand, the message of Templeton’s evolution is easily deciphered. American fundamentalism has played out its John-the-Baptist role and is now to withdraw as congenially as possible, leaving global leadership to a new, more ecumenical Anglo-American alliance. The hellfire rhetoric, so inappropriate to such an agenda, will yield to the gleamingly optimistic deism projected by Templetonians like Dyson, Collins, and Taylor. Religion then becomes less a body of revelations than a search for viable intuitions. It defers to science on matters of fact but stands on the uphill side of “spiritual reality.” Will spiritual reality be ecumenical? How many evil empires need be overthrown to make the world safe for universal religion? To these crucial questions, answers presumably will be forthcoming when they are needed—that is, when the questions present themselves for resolution through the unfolding of the global free market.

Stage 4: An Atheist for All Seasons

It follows that the big losers in the God Debate are those Christian fundamentalists whose hubris actually triggered the conflict. Deists and ecumenicalists—that is to say, believers in some sort of anthropomorphic spirituality—are the big winners. They stand at the top of the pile because their metaphor, which compresses science and religion into a unified binary constellation, has the effect of banishing the need to defend either side against the other. What results is neutral territory, rather like the Swiss Republic, within which interested parties on each side can do business together.

So where are the atheists? For one thing, they are more visible than previously. Many scientists—not necessarily writing about religion but simply doing science—find it appropriate nowadays to register their disbelief. When the atheist scientists marched in to defend science, they obviously enhanced their visibility. Public acceptance of atheism probably increased as a result, but only minimally. If one thinks science needs defense only against fundamentalism (not against religion per se), then making the full atheist argument may seem unjustifiably risky. Thus the atheist assault on creationism and intelligent design (precisely because of its effectiveness) plays into the hands of the Templetonians, since it leaves an impression that nothing more is needed—that once the fundamentalist danger has been nullified, believers and nonbelievers will live together nicely in their yellow submarine, making progress toward “research or discoveries about Spiritual Realities.” But this, of course, is not how atheists perceive it. For them, fundamentalism represents the tip of a giant iceberg whose more dangerous hulk remains underwater.

The historical circumstances that initiated the God Debate have channeled its development. Among scientists criticizing religion, we have heard so far mainly from evolutionary biologists and a few physicists. Accustomed to scientific styles of argument, they supposed that religion itself could be dismissed simply by showing it to be irrational, lacking empirical validation—in short, unscientific. One might describe this as the ultimate rational fallacy: since religion is irrational and unscientific, people ought not accept it. Yet they do accept it. “Though the details differ across the world,” Dawkins acknowledges, “no known culture lacks some version . . . of religion.” (Several words omitted from the preceding quotation happen to express its most significant part, and I will come back to them.) First, however, I need to focus on universality. Universality trumps sectarian fundamentalisms. Among all possible inducements to belief, the most persuasive for believers is the fact of religion’s universality. How could this be accounted for other than divine intervention? Where the atheist needs to begin, then, is not so much with polemics against creationism and intelligent design as with a convincing, secular, historical explanation of how religion in fact became universal to the human species.

Fortunately, we have a strong model for just such an explanation. I take it from Dawkins, who in turn quotes Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of evolutionary psychology.

Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems. As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness. [Fre
e Inquiry
26, No. 1 (2006): 18–19.]

Hauser (with due credit to Noam Chomsky) and Dawkins borrow a model from language theory to use as an analogue for the evolutionary development of morality. I think it works equally well (perhaps better) as a model for the evolution of religion. In that case, religion’s universality would correspond to the inherent human “language-ability” (as theorized by Chomsky), whereas religion’s particular forms (its sectarian fundamentalisms) would resemble particular languages or dialects, endlessly in flux by way of random drift or through flights of cultural replication, as described by Dawkins in his conceptualization of “memes.”

Such an account of religion, based on the language model, would need to begin hypothetically, since it deals with events more ancient than any archeological or historical evidence we are likely to stumble on. Various competing hypotheses would serve to “illustrate the main idea” of what could, or must, have occurred (assuming we rule out supernatural interventions) in order to connect a hypothetical starting point to the empirical reality that we know comes later. Dawkins describes this process in relation to a comparable (but more difficult) problem, the origin of biological life on Earth. Religion ought to be easier to trace because it stands next door to us in the arena of our current existence—that is, in cultural evolution. To explain how religion became culturally universal requires historical explanation. The difficult point to grasp here is that the truth or falsity of belief itself remains irrelevant to a historical explanation of how religion became universal in human culture.

Earlier, I quoted a sentence from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, out of which I had deleted an important segment. The sentence in full reads as follows: “Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.” The effect is to concede religion’s universality yet attach to it such negative traits that a reader must wonder how it ever became universal. If arrived at under biological evolution, natural selection ought to have precluded universality. If it came later, in the era of cultural evolution, one would suppose the mental capacities already constructing such marvels as language, tool- and weapons-manufacture, foraging, herding, agriculture, etc., would have steered our parents away from the disasters that (so Dawkins tells us) awaited them in religion.

Thinking such opinions might be especially characteristic of evolutionary biologists, I turned to the work of a physicist/astronomer, Victor Stenger, an atheist critic of religion highly praised by Dawkins. “[E]mpirical evidence,” Stenger tells us, “does not support the widespread assertion that religion is especially beneficial to society as a whole. Of course it has always proved extremely beneficial to those in power—helping them to retain that power—from prehistoric times to the latest presidential election. But it is not clear how society is any better off than it would have been had the idea of gods and spirits never evolved.” More explicitly than Dawkins, Stenger here links religion’s presumed destructive impact to gender and class exploitation, both of which he takes to be dysfunctional or maladaptive. But does this make sense historically?

What I am getting at is that it might be more economical to revise the line of argument from the beginning. It is widely agreed that religion did in fact become universal to our species. If one precludes supernatural explanation, it is difficult to imagine how that could have happened unless (during some of its history at least) religion contributed adaptively to human survival. Logically minded, scientifically trained atheists perhaps find such a concession troubling because it seems to undercut the urgency for getting rid of religion. Historical argument, however, encounters no such difficulty. Gender and class exploitation (even if morally distasteful) gave privileged classes the leisure to construct culture, including science and industrial technology. By contributing to this outcome—as obviously it did—religion worked adaptively, since culture, historically, has proved the definitive adaptation of our species.

Taking another example, suppose we begin with an assertion (for which there is abundant empirical evidence) that wars between rival social groups—tribes, city-states, nations, empires—played a major role in human history. Religion abetted this process by its divisiveness; that is, by empowering each social group to perceive its opponents as dupes or agents of the Evil Empire. The effect was to escalate economic and political disputes into holy wars or crusades. This might appear morally reprehensible and could seem, in one context, maladaptive with respect to species survival—which I think is how Stenger perceived it. Yet since war stimulates technology, and technological development expands the collective culture, a longer-range result will be to enhance the global dominance of the human species. Religion and war, yoked together, function adaptively—or they did, within a certain time period. And since the time period (once we get beyond its hypothesized beginnings) is historical, such assertions need not be left in hypothetical mode but can be falsified or verified.

So what was the historical turning point? The turn came at the end of the Second World War, when Hiroshima/Nagasaki made clear that weapons of mass destruction were capable of destroying life on Earth; and when, at the same time, pioneer ecologists including Rachel Carson, among many, demonstrated that industrial technology, which had seemed so useful and desirable, was in fact rapidly exhausting our planetary ecosystem. The bottom line, then, is that religion could remain adaptive, or beneficial, only so long as wars between “our gang”—us—and the Evil Empire could be fought without destroying the entire human species, and only so long as industrial technology could be pushed forward without contaminating the natural world in which all biological life is based. When those conditions changed, religion ceased being adaptive to human survival and became dysfunctional. The advantage of historical argument is that it explains how religion became universal—and why it later became dysfunctional—without needing to evaluate religion’s morality, or its scientific truth, as causal factors. Sam Harris, who in his 2004 best-seller The End of Faith insisted on the absolute dysfunctionality of religion, later arrived at a view similar to mine. In Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Harris wrote that religion may have served some necessary function in ancient times, but that “does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”

Speculation: Religion and the Real Crises

The historical argument forces us to pay heed to the real crises of the twenty-first century: ecological burnout and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. None of the recent, prominent books by scientist-nonbelievers actually does this, which seems to me a severe fault. Consider E.O. Wilson’s 2006 The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (an excerpt of which appeared in Free Inquiry, April/May 2008), an appeal to Christian pastors to join with scientists to save the planetary biosystem. Despite his eloquence, Wilson deals with only one of the imminent crises while studiously ignoring that both are certain to be politically intermeshed and mutually reinforcing.

How do ecological burnout and weapons proliferation intermix? Consider that the universal factor of all religion is to imagine a benevolent, anthropomorphic spirit in nature charged with keeping open for human creatures their access to a privileged track. The problem of evil, then, is not a theological invention. On the contrary, it is religious belief itself viewed from the flip side, seen through its mirror image. If nature seems bent on destroying us—as with the onset of ecological disasters—that must be because some evil power stands against the divine (read human!) spirit imagined to reside in nature. Ecological burnout intensifies the struggle for natural resources. Others—that is, human others—who block our access to resources (oil, for example) become for us dupes or agents of the Evil Empire. Religion says get rid of them. So we maintain nuclear arsenals and create biological-warfare laboratories. Crises escalate and reinforce one another while religion provides wind for the firestorm. Can we escape this race to the bottom?

The real imperative, I think, is not escape, but survival. Survival (if there is any survival) will be accompanied by varying degrees of possible damage. Global disasters are certain to disrupt the social order, including its religious affiliations. We will see new schisms and breakaways. To stand against their own clerical hierarchies, critics within each faith tradition will need powers of argument and demonstration that come only from outside of religion. So critics and reformers inside will be obliged to collaborate with skeptics and nonbelievers outside. Might there be signals exchanged simply at the level of common interest? Believers for the next few years will certainly comprise a majority of world population, nonbelievers perhaps a slowly increasing minority.

The truth—the hard-core, “get-real” kind of truth—is that somewhere down under, by some sort of subliminal awareness, every human really knows that believing in belief (as the song famously tells us about falling in love with love), is “nothing but make believe.” The atheist’s mission is to nourish the seed beneath the snow: to seek not escape but survival.

Alexander Saxton

Alexander Saxton is professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti- Chinese Movement in California (1971, 1993), The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (1990, 2003), and Religion and the Human Prospect (2006).


The “Great God Debate” that ushered in the twenty-first century of our so-called Common Era brought atheism to the top of U.S. best-seller lists. This in itself i s historic: nothing quite like it has happened since the 1890s, when Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and Jack London—world-class nonbelievers all—held mass audiences spellbound with their radical …

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